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novel about the eighteenth century notes that the characters traveled from one
country to another, she expects that, unless she wrote otherwise, we will not
imagine that the characters were teleported. No artist can say or depict everything
there is to say or to depict about the fictional events she is narrating. She depends
upon the audience to fill in a great deal and that filling-in is an indispensable part
of what it is to follow and to comprehend a narrative.10
Moreover, the kinds of details that authors rely on audiences to supply come
in all different shapes and sizes, ranging from facts about human biology to facts
about geography, history, politics, religion, and so on. In many cases, the author
relies upon what we know or believe about human psychology in order for her
narratives to be intelligible. For example, in Eug©nie Grandet, Balzac presumes that
the audience has enough understanding of the ways of the human heart to see
how it is that Eugenie™s betrayal at the hands of her cousin can precipitate an
irreparable bitterness that turns her into the very image of her father. Likewise, in
the Symposium, Plato supposes that the reader knows enough about flirtation to
understand the erotic triangle with Agathon at its apex in order to appreciate the
sly maneuverings of Socractes and Alcibiades.And in The Bluest Eye, Toni Morri-
son relies on the reader™s understanding of human psychology to see how Pecola™s
plight derives from her aunt™s displacement of her maternal concerns from her
own family to that of her white employers inasmuch as the white family can pro-
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vide her with the material conditions that will enable her to take pride in running
a functioning household.
But the audience™s activity of filling in the narrative does not simply have to
do with recognizing what the text suggests or implies or presupposes about the
contours of its fictional world and about the nature and psychology of the human
characters that inhabit that world. To understand a text properly also involves
mobilizing the emotions that are requisite to the text. Properly understanding
Trollope™s Dr.Wortle™s School involves feeling distrust toward Robert Lefroy, while
anyone who does not find Uriah Heep in David Copperfield repugnant would have
missed Dickens™s point. One does not understand Hemingway™s For Whom the Bell
Tolls unless one admires Robert Jordan™s restraint, just as the reader must ulti-
mately find Casaubon despicable in order to “get” Middlemarch. Similarly, “get-
ting” Medea, it seems to me, requires finding her actions finally appalling, whereas
anyone left unmoved by the experiences of the members of the Joy Luck Club
would find the point of that novel incomprehensible.
A narrative by its very nature is selective and, therefore, incomplete in certain
specifiable senses. It is for this reason that the successful author requires an audi-
ence that can bring to the text, among other things, what is not explicit in it.This
further dictates that, to a large extent, the author and the audience need to share a
common background of beliefs about the world and about human nature, as well
as a relatively common emotional life.That is, authors generally not only possess a
shared cognitive stock with audiences, but a shared emotional stock as well. The
author designs her work with an implicit working hypothesis about the knowl-
edge that her anticipated reader will bring to the text, along with knowledge of
how the reader will feel toward the characters. For unless the readers feel toward
the characters in certain ways, they will be unlikely to comprehend the narrative.
Of course, the cognitive stock that the audience needs to possess in order to
properly understand a narrative fiction includes not only knowledge of geography
and human nature, but moral knowledge as well.And the emotions that the audi-
ence brings to bear on a narrative are not only shot through with moral concepts,
in the way that, say, anger is “ insofar as “being wronged” is conceptually criterial
for feeling it “ but the relevant emotions are themselves very often moral emo-
tions, such as contempt for wanton brutality and the indignation at injustice that
pervades almost every page of Uncle Tom™s Cabin.
One cannot, for example, admire Schindler in the way the film Schindler™s List
encourages if one does not feel that the Nazis are morally loathsome. And even
melodramas, like Back Street, typically evoke an emotional response that is a mix-
ture of moral admiration for the protagonists “ often as a result of recognizing the
nobility involved in their self-sacrificing behavior “ and sorrow over their adver-
sity.11 There is no “melodramatic” response, just as according to Aristotle there is
no tragic response, when the audience misconstrues the moral standing of the rel-
evant characters. Nor is it likely that there can be a successful narrative of any sub-
stance that would not rely on activating the moral powers of the readership.12 And
finally, of course, in the general case, the author can rely on the audience sharing
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the relevant cognitive and emotive stock because the audience and the author
already share a roughly common culture.
In his Letter to M. D™Alembert on the Theater, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that
theater cannot transform a community morally or reform it.13 Rousseau believes
this because he points out that in order to succeed an author has to write within
the moral framework of his times. As Rousseau notes, “An author who would
brave the general taste would soon write for himself alone.”14 That is, there are
“market pressures,” so to speak, that incline authors to design their works in such
a way that they rely on a fit between their narratives and a roughly common cog-
nitive, emotive, and moral stock that is shared by the readers, viewers, and listeners
who make up the expected audience of the work. If there were no such common
background, there would be no communication, since there could be no uptake.
A narrative is built so that its anticipated audience can understand it, and in
order to understand a narrative properly, an audience will have to mobilize its
knowledge and its emotions, moral and otherwise, in the process of filling in a
story. This means that in order to understand a narrative properly, we must use
many of the same beliefs and emotions, generally rooted in our common culture,
that we use to negotiate everyday human events for the purpose of filling in and
getting the point of stories. In this sense, it is not the case that the narrative teaches
us something brand new, but rather that it activates the knowledge and emotions,
moral and otherwise, that we already possess.
That is, the successful narrative becomes the occasion for exercising knowl-
edge, concepts, and emotions that we have already, in one sense, learned. Filling in
the narrative is a matter of mobilizing or accessing the cognitive, emotive, and
moral repertoire that, for the most part, we already have at our disposal. Narra-
tives, in other words, provide us with opportunities to, among other things, exer-
cise our moral powers, because the very process of understanding a narrative is
itself, to a significant degree, generally an exercise of our moral powers.
Because successful narratives are so inextricably bound up with the opportu-
nity they afford for the exercise of our moral powers, it is quite natural for ethical
concerns to recur frequently when we discuss stories. Insofar as narratives neces-
sarily depend upon activating our moral beliefs, concepts, and feelings, it comes as
no surprise that we should want to discuss, to share, and to compare with other
readers our reactions to the characters, situations, and overall texts that authors
present to us with the clear intention of eliciting, among other things, moral
responses. That is, it is natural for us to think about and to discuss narratives in
terms of ethics, because narratives, due to the kinds of things they are, awaken, stir
up, and engage our moral powers of recognition and judgment.
If this account is correct, and if we suppose, in addition, that learning is a mat-
ter of the acquisition of interesting propositions heretofore unknown or of freshly
minted moral emotions, then, as the autonomist argues, in the standard case there
is no learning when it comes to the vast majority of narrative artworks, since
those artworks antecedently depend, as a condition of their very intelligibility,
upon our possession of the relevant knowledge of various moral precepts, and of
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concepts of vice and virtue, and so on. Nor do narratives invest us with and
thereby teach us new emotions; rather they typically exercise the emotions we
already possess. So the autonomist™s case against the hypothesis that the relation of
art to the emotions cannot be one of moral education looks persuasive.
And yet it does seem that the operative sense of learning in the autonomist™s
argument is too restrictive. For there is another sense of learning “ both moral and
otherwise “ that the autonomist has ignored and that applies to the kinds of activ-
ities that narrative artworks abet. It is this: that in mobilizing what we already
know and what we can already feel, the narrative artwork can become an occasion
for us to deepen our understanding of what we know and what we feel. Notably,
for our purposes, a narrative can become an opportunity for us to deepen our
grasp of the moral knowledge and emotions we already command.
This conception of the relation of art, especially narrative art, to morality might
be called the transactional view (because of its emphasis on the transaction between
the narrative artwork and the moral understanding), or it might be called, as I prefer
to call it, the clarificationist view, in honor of the most prized transaction that can tran-
spire between the narrative artwork and the moral understanding. Clarificationism
does not claim that, in the standard case, we acquire interesting, new propositional
knowledge from artworks, but rather that the artworks in question can deepen our
moral understanding by, among other things, encouraging us to apply our moral
knowledge and emotions to specific cases. For in being prompted to apply and
engage our antecedent moral powers, we may come to augment them.
In the course of engaging a given narrative we may need to reorganize the hier-
archical orderings of our moral categories and premises, or to reinterpret those cat-
egories and premises in the light of new paradigm instances and hard cases, or to
reclassify barely acknowledged phenomena afresh “ something we might be pro-
voked to do by a feminist author who is able to show us injustice where before all
we saw was culture as usual.Thus, in Up the Sandbox, Anne Richardson Roiphe jux-
taposes adventure fantasies with the daily chores of a housewife in order to highlight
the inequality of the latter™s life when compared to her husband™s.
A play like A Raisin in the Sun addresses white audiences in such a way as to
incite vividly their recognition that African Americans are persons like any other
and therefore should be accorded the kind of equal treatment for persons that
such audiences already endorse as a matter of moral principle.The play does this
by showing that the dreams and the family bonds of the major characters are no
different from those of other persons, thereby prompting the subsumption of
African-Americans under a moral precept concerning equal treatment that the
audience already believes. This, in turn, encourages the white audience to form
the moral judgment that the way in which the prospective white neighbors of the
black family respond to their purchasing a house in their neighborhood is wrong.
In this case, as in many others, it seems accurate to describe what goes on in
the white audience as a discovery about something it already knows; that is, audi-
ence members put together previously disconnected belief fragments in a new
gestalt in a way that changes their moral perception. Here it is not primarily that
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white audience members acquire a new piece of moral knowledge; rather they are
prompted to make connections between the beliefs they already possess.
The characters and the situations presented by the play afford an occasion to
reorganize or reshuffle the moral beliefs that the white audience already has at its
disposal. Its system of beliefs undergoes clarification. Its grasp and understanding of
what it already knows is deepened in a way that counts, I contend, as learning,
though it may not primarily be a matter of learning an interesting new proposition,
since in some sense, the white audience already knows that African Americans are
persons and that persons deserve treatment as equals. They might even be able to
recite the relevant syllogism, but it would not strike home.What the play succeeds
in doing is to create a situation that encourages the audience to forge a salient con-
nection between heretofore perhaps isolated beliefs.We are given an opportunity to
deepen our grasp and our understanding of what we already know in a way that also
counts as learning, though not necessarily as a matter of learning interesting, non-
trivial, new propositions.15 Rather, it is more a matter of grasping the significance of
the connections between antecedently possessed knowledge.16
I intend here to draw a contrast between knowledge and understanding such
that understanding is meant to mark our capacity to manipulate what we know
and to apply it with a sense of intelligibility “ not simply to have access to abstract
propositions and concepts, but to employ them intelligibly and appropriately.
Understanding is a capacity to see and to be responsive to connections between
our beliefs.A person with understanding has the ability to find her way around in
the mental geography of her own cognitive stock.17 Understanding is the ability
to make connections between what we already know. With understanding, we
acquire increasing familiarity with concepts and principles that are at first bewil-
dering. Understanding is the activity of refining what we already know, of recog-
nizing connections between parts of our knowledge stock, of bringing what we
already know to clarity through a process of practice and judgment.18
We may possess abstract principles, like “All persons should be given their
due,” and abstract concepts, such as “Virtue is what promotes human flourishing,”
without being able to connect these abstractions to concrete situations. For that
requires not only knowing these abstractions, but understanding them. Moreover,
it is this kind of understanding “ particularly with respect to moral understanding
“ to which engaging with narrative artworks may contribute.19 For narrative, as
we have seen, involves the exercise of moral judgment and it is through the exer-
cise of judgment that we come to understand moral abstractions.
Inasmuch as understanding is often a function of correctly classifying things,
fictional narratives frequently present us with opportunities to deliberate about
how to categorize behaviors and character traits, and thereby they can enhance
our capacity for classifying the human environment “ by linking abstract concepts
to percepts in ways that can make us more sensitive to applying them to real-
world cases. As I have already suggested, it seems to me that the work of many
feminist novelists has been to get people to reclassify a great many everyday prac-
tices under the category of injustice.20
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Moreover, insofar as the emotions involve a conceptual component “ in terms of
formal criteria for what can serve as the object of an emotional state “ it is coherent
to talk about deepening our emotional understanding.This involves treating the nar-
rative as an occasion for clarifying our emotions or, as Aristotle might put it, of learn-
ing to apply the right emotion to the appropriate object with suitable intensity.
As is probably apparent, for the clarificationist, engaging with or coming to
understand a narrative artwork can itself simultaneously be a process of deepening
one™s own moral understanding. Recognizing that there is something deeply
wrong with Emma™s “guidance” of Harriet in Jane Austen™s classic is not only a
requisite recognition for properly understanding the novel; it also deepens our
moral understanding by providing us with a penetrating portrait of interpersonal
manipulation, which, though well intentioned, is ultimately self-deceptive as well
as wicked. Moreover, the fact that we must resist the allure of Emma™s otherwise
attractive moral character before we reach this insight about the wrongness of her
interference with Harriet™s life makes reading the novel Emma all the more ser-
viceable as an occasion where we have the opportunity to expand our moral
understanding, though not our knowledge (insofar as we already knew the
abstract maxim that treating people merely as a means is immoral).21
On the clarificationist view, learning from a narrative artwork through the
enlargement or expansion of one™s moral understanding is not well described as a
consequence of engaging with the story. Understanding the work, enlarging one™s
moral understanding, and learning from the narrative are all part and parcel of the
same process, which might be called comprehending or following the narrative.
When reading a novel or viewing a drama, our moral understanding is engaged
already. Reading a novel, for example, is itself generally a moral activity insofar as
reading narrative literature typically involves us in a continuous process of moral
judgment, which continuous exercise of moral judgment itself can contribute to
the expansion of our moral understanding.When reading a novel, we are engaged
in a moral activity already insofar as our powers of moral judgment and under-
standing have been drawn into play, and, as we shall later see, our moral assessment
of a narrative artwork may rest on the quality of that moral activity or experience,
rather than on speculations about the probable behavioral consequences of read-
ing, hearing, or viewing that fiction.
Moreover, by talking of the expansion or enlargement of our moral powers, I
am not speaking metaphorically, since the process of understanding that I have in
mind concerns making more connections between what we already know or
believe, while by the notion of exercising our moral understanding I mean to sig-
nal that successful narrative artworks, as a condition of intelligibility, compel us to
make moral judgments.
In order to avoid obscurity, it will be useful for me to provide some examples of
the way in which narrative artworks can enhance the understanding. As Sir Philip
Sidney and Immanuel Kant point out, we are often possessed of general propositions
that are very abstract and that we may not be able to connect with particular situa-
tions.22 That is, they are so abstract that they leave us at a loss about how to apply
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them. But narrative artworks can supply us with vivid examples that enable us to see
how to apply abstractions to particulars. For example, King Lear gives us an arresting
example with which to understand the general proposition that “a house divided
shall not stand”; Brecht™s Three Penny Opera exemplifies the principle that the qual-
ity of moral life is coarsened by poverty; Measure for Measure shows how power cor-
rupts; the early-twentieth-century film serial Judex dramatizes the adage “Judge not,

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